Once Again, Oregon’s Undocumented Community Stands Up and Fights Back

Story and photos by Pete Shaw

On Tuesday November 13, as the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments regarding whether the Republican Trump Administration could rescind the protections provided by President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, over 200 people gathered in Terry Schrunk Plaza to demand the policy be continued, and as well to defend recipients of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) who are also under attack. The rally, organized by Causa, the Oregon DACA Coalition, and Power to the Dreamers, was one of many throughout the country insisting that the up to 800,000 active DACA recipients in the United States continue being protected from arrest and deportation.

“We are fed up with this system that calls us illegal,” said Joséluis Jiménez Maldonado of the Oregon DACA Coalition. “We are fed up with this system that makes us prove every two years that we deserve to stay in our homes. But most of all we are fed up with being deported and our families being separated. We are living in a time of uncertainty. We have no idea how the supreme court is gonna rule. They could reinstate DACA, allowing thousands of people graduating high school the ability to just feel safe in their neighborhood. But if there’s anything we’ve learned, it can be terminated and we could be marked for deportation. We won’t be able to work, and we’ll just not be able to really feel safe here.”

From its inception, DACA has been challenged in the courts. Then in September 2017, Attorney General Jefferson Sessions announced that the Trump Administration planned to phase out the DACA program. Injunctions issued by federal judges in California and New York required that DACA be kept in place, but its fate now lies before a Supreme Court composed of a distinctly regressive majority with a tendency toward deference to presidential power. The case before it is actually three DACA related cases, including those from California and New York, rolled into one.

As the issue of DACA’s legality wound its way through the judicial system toward the Supreme Court, Congress dealt with numerous proposals meant to remediate the Trump Administration’s abolition of the program, but none of them could get through the Republican controlled Senate. While this may have been for the better as many of those proposals involved further militarizing the Mexico-US border and dehumanizing migrants, the fact remains that people without documentation in the US once again find themselves on tenuous ground.

At Tuesday’s rally, Enrique Ruíz sized up the situation, telling the crowd of over 200 people, “What’s happening in DC is not just. What’s happening with the current administration is not just. What’s happening with our own community, with our family, with our cousins, with the people we love, is not just.”

President Obama’s creation of DACA came as a result of the confluence of congressional failure to put forth a bill that respected the humanity of people who often due to US economic and foreign policies had migrated to this country, and a great deal of pressure put on Obama by many migrants, particularly those from Mexico, Central America, and South America.

The first major proposed legislation calling for an overhaul of the US immigration system since the Reagan Administration was the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act. Initially put forth in 2001, the DREAM Act would allow people without documentation between the ages of 12 and 35 at the time the bill was enacted, after satisfying a series of requirements, to become permanent residents. The DREAM Act did not pass in 2001, and despite being reintroduced several times since then, it has never passed through Congress. Many subsequent attempts at immigration reform have produced bills which have regarded migrants–often understood to mean people from countries south of the Mexico-US border–as somewhere between criminals and indentured servants.

Facing a difficult reelection campaign in 2012, Obama found tepid enthusiasm from voters of Mexican, Central American, and South American descent who were crucial to his prospects for a second presidential term. As well, Obama faced the possibility of the Democrats losing the Senate which at that time they controlled. No surprise there as he had been arresting and deporting people without documentation, tearing apart families and communities, at a greater rate than his immediate predecessor, President George W. Bush. Refusing to stay silent and in the shadows, young people without documentation and their allies confronted Obama along the campaign trail, refusing to accept his excuses for continuing their and their families’ persecution. The effective organizing of the immigrant and immigrant justice communities forced Obama’s hand, and from their pressure came DACA, which relaxed the rules for some people without documentation who met certain requirements.

“DACA allows us to be the first ones in our family to go to college,” said Maldonado. “It allows us to work legally and demand justice in the places where we make money. But probably most importantly, it allows us to feel safe in these neighborhoods, in these streets, in our schools. Because this is our home.”

While DACA was a step forward toward immigrant justice, it was a step that had less than firm grounding. What one president gives, another can take away. And so Tuesday’s rally once again saw immigrants boldly standing up, telling their stories, and demanding their humanity and dignity be respected.

Itzl of Power to the Dreamers described how at 8 years old she, her mother, and her 4 year old brother migrated from Mexico to the US to make sure her brother, who had a cognitive disability, could receive the care “he so much deserved.” After a harrowing crossing of the Rio Grande in a “dingy-assed raft”–Itzl had seen stories about migrants who had drowned trying to cross it–and seeing her mother be taken off a bus headed for Houston, Texas by border patrol agents (Itzl kept quiet, knowing her job was to make sure her brother got “to where he needed to go”), she found a new home in Houston. A few weeks later she was reunited with her mother who repeated the perilous border crossing, this time without interference.

Describing the uncertainty that has been part of her life–the unpredictability of migrating to the US, living here, and now the Supreme Court’s impending decision–Itzl stated, “It’s just what my life has been.” And she also knows the greatest uncertainty of all. A year after arriving in the US, her brother passed away. “The whole entire reason we had even come to this country–it was gone.”

Escaping from an abusive male relative, she and her mom built a life of their own. Itzl graduated from high school, but she says she was left without hope. Her high school counselor told her that without a social security number or documentation, there was little she could do to pursue her dreams.

Itzl went into “a deep depression until DACA was introduced in 2012.” At first she did not apply, but eventually she did and was approved. “As soon as I received my permit,” she said, “my life completely changed. I had the privilege to work legally and have a stable job with a really good salary. I got in there and did not stop. I had health insurance for the first time in years. It’s like things that everybody takes for granted, I finally was able to take advantage of.”

Now with DACA potentially being rescinded, and with her way of life in this country in jeopardy, she finds herself worried about once again being forced to demonstrate her value as a person . “It’s really shitty to have to be here again and have to fight and have to–I shouldn’t have to prove to anybody that I am worthy of being here, that I am worthy of taking up this space. I have as much right to be here as any of y’all.”

Vania of Dream PSU knows similar stresses. She is due to get her master’s degree in social work in June, and currently she is working in an area high school. She not only knows what the abolition of DACA might mean for her, but also for some of the students with whom she works.

She told the crowd, “While to many the thought of graduating in June is something they wait for with excitement, for me it is something that I await with uncertainty. June is supposed to be the last month in which the Supreme Court can make a decision about the future of DACA, and depending on what the verdict is, there is a chance my goal will be ground to a halt. This is my reality. The reality of my students is quite different. I work with a group of amazing high schoolers, and many of them are seniors. While they should be looking to the future after high school with excitement, they are anxious at the thought of what comes next. Because they did not have the opportunity apply for DACA before it was rescinded, they are not sure of how they will make college a possibility or how they will get a job. Survival is the only thing on their mind at this point.”

The depression mentioned by Itzl and the anxiety felt by Vania and her students is not uncommon, and they were brought up many times at the rally. Aside from raising the living standards of many people without documentation, DACA has also improved the mental health outcomes for participants and their children. A study of immigrant mothers who qualified for DACA published in the September 8, 2017 issue of Science found that “mothers’ DACA eligibility significantly decreased adjustment and anxiety disorder diagnoses among their children” and that “parents’ unauthorized status is thus a substantial barrier to normal child development and perpetuates health inequalities through the intergenerational transmission of disadvantage.” The authors of the study also wrote, “Our results imply that expanding deferred action to the millions of unauthorized immigrant parents who do not meet the current DACA eligibility criteria could further promote the health and well-being of this next generation of American citizens. Moreover, it is reasonable to expect that permanent legal status or a pathway to citizenship would have an equal, if not greater, effect on improving children’s health.”

Another study published in The Lancet Public Health found that “DACA eligibility was associated with large, clinically meaningful reductions in symptoms of psychological distress.” As well, the authors of another study of the effects of DACA on the psychological wellness of its recipients, published in Social Science & Medicine, stated that their results “demonstrate…the positive emotional consequences of transitioning out of undocumented status for immigrant young adults.”

One major source of that depression and anxiety lies in not being valued as a human being, of not being afforded the dignity that should be inherent with being a living person. Petrona Dominguez, who grew up in Forest Grove which at that time was “very white” recalled seeing Confederate flags and hearing her white peers call her a “stupid Mexican” (she is not from Mexico, she noted, but rather, she is from Central America) understands that depression, and as well knows the tremendous courage it takes to fight back against its cause.

“Some of us are pissed off,” she stated. “Some of us are excited. We have hope that there’s gonna be something great out of this, but at the same time some of us are facing depression because we don’t know what’s gonna happen. And that is the reality: we don’t know what the fuck is gonna happen. We are here. We’re strong. We’re gonna keep fighting.”

Dominguez also noted that Tuesday’s rallies across the US were not just about DACA. She reminded the audience, “We are here to stand with our community. We are here to defend DACA, yes. But let’s recognize that we are also here to defend the undocumented community. It’s not just about DACA. It’s about our community. It’s about our dignity and that we should be acknowledging that we need to keep pushing for us and for them.”

The organizing of the immigrant and immigrant justice communities has long been effective, even astounding. Tuesday’s rallies were another extension of that organizing work. As Dominguez put it, “We are the revolution. We may not see it. We may not feel it. But we will see the fruit of the labor that we are putting in, in this moment, right here together–whether it’s for us or the next generation–but we are pushing for something that will provide not only a home, but a lack of fear. We are gonna be pushing for our community.”

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